x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestinians condemn Israeli unilateral plan to withdraw from some parts of West Bank

Palestinians blast a plan raised by the Israeli defence minister that called for Israel to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank if peace talks remain stalled.

TEL AVIV // Palestinians yesterday blasted a plan raised by the Israeli defence minister that called for Israel to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank if peace talks remain stalled.

On Wednesday, Ehud Barak told a security conference in Tel Aviv that Israel "cannot afford to tread water" and has to "consider an interim arrangement or even unilateral steps".

Mr Barak and other top Israeli officials who have pushed for the two-state solution have repeatedly said that Israel faces the threat of losing its Jewish majority should it continue to rule over Palestinians in the West Bank.

Analysts said yesterday that Mr Barak, a former premier who is viewed as a confidante to the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, most probably referred to the possibility that Israel may withdraw civilians and troops from some parts of the West Bank. This would be similar to the country's 2005 withdrawal of soldiers and about 8,500 civilians from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year occupation.

The plan indicates that the idea of one-sided moves is gaining traction among Israeli decision-makers in the absence of advances in peace talks. Still, analysts said such a notion is unlikely to be carried out because of anticipated right-wing opposition to evacuating settlements.

Furthermore, surveys have shown that the country's majority Jewish population may be resistant to an Israeli withdrawal that is not part of a peace pact with the Palestinians.

Direct negotiations between the parties broke down in September 2010, when Israel rejected the Palestinian demand to renew a temporary freeze of construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinians yesterday condemned the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the western-backed Palestinian Authority, said: "It's illogical, unacceptable and unconstructive for an Israeli official to threaten unilateral acts while the main reason that the peace process is not moving is unilateral Israeli acts like settlement expansion."

In his speech, Mr Barak did not specify what he meant by unilateral action. His statements nevertheless surprised many observers because Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly suggested he would oppose one-sided moves such as the Gaza withdrawal, which he viewed as a failure because Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets on southern Israeli communities since then.

The premier has often warned that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would help the Islamic group Hamas - which now rules Gaza - to fire rockets at central Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv.

Additionally, the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon is also viewed by many Israelis as having allowed the Shiite group Hizbollah to amass arms aimed at attacking Israel. Israel and Hizbollah fought a 34-day war in mid-2006 that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 158 in Israel.

Yehuda Ben Meir, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, the organisation that hosted Wednesday's conference, said Mr Barak's plan appeared to urge the government to decide the borders it wants to have with the future Palestinian state. Such borders, he said, were likely to be set along the lines of the controversial West Bank barrier that Israel is building in and along the Palestinian territory.

Israel would then arrange for voluntary evictions of some 80,000 Israeli civilians living east of the barrier through a form of compensation, while leaving part of its army there on a temporary basis, he said.

According to Mr Ben Yehuda, such a plan would not be "politically viable" for Mr Netanyahu, despite the premier in early May adding a major centrist party to his coalition to help offset the influence of right-wing coalition parties.

"The Right would oppose a massive removal of settlements, and Israelis in general have become disillusioned about unilateral actions," he said. "There would certainly be no support for forcibly removing settlers unless it was part of a wider peace pact."

In Israel, the notion of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank has emerged as a much-discussed option. In April, Ami Ayalon, a former chief of the Mossad spy agency, and Gilad Sher, an ex-top adviser to Mr Barak, wrote in a joint opinion piece in The New York Times that Israel must act to advance the two-state solution regardless of whether the Palestinians accept it.

"Through a series of unilateral actions, gradual but tangible changes could begin to transform the situation on the ground," they wrote.

Mr Netanyahu's more moderate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had also floated on the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank, but the plan was abandoned after Israel engaged in the war with Hizbollah.